Unlike any of his predecessors, Deriba Kuma, Mayor of Addis Abeba, spends much of his time dealing with inherited problems. For a politician with little influence and experience in running complex municipal affairs, the job of cleaning a kitchen that has remained filthy takes a lot. There are various, often conflicting, interests to balance; multiple threads of affiliations to watch out for; complex sets of established traditions to reform; and, considerable political stakes to be maintained.
Three years in office, Deriba is still struggling with the complexity of the city’s convoluted state of affairs. Not even maintaining much of the cabinet members from his immediate predecessor, Kuma Demekssa, helped in reforming the administration’s way of doing business. Indicative of this rather second-rate state of affairs is lack of any new initiative by his Administration. The only game in town is maintaining past policies and projects, albeit with new public relations stunt.
Hardly is there any better indicator of this than the land management system in the City. Little has changed in the way the land resources of Addis Abeba are managed. Not only is accessing land cumbersome, but a flexible chain of brokers has emerged to distort the whole process in favour of the few. Land management bureaus at different tiers remain disorganised, inefficient, unaccountable and corrupt.
Even by the accounts of Deriba himself, as indicated in his latest report to the City’s councillors, land management is one of the hotbeds of corruption. There is almost no professionalism, transparency and accountability in the system. Not even the various committees established to systematize it helped solve the problem; they remain as problematic as their members. As the saying goes, “the whole is as good as it parts”.
Lately, for example, tens of squatter houses around Weregenu, in north-east Addis Abeba, have been demolished by law enforcement officers. It has left many people homeless, left children out of school and destabilized families. Similar incidents have occurred in the past around Qeranio, Bole Bulbula, and Hana Mariam.
It is not the action per se that is befuddling, as it is the timing. The City has been aware of the squatting for years and failed to enforce the law. This gave squatters a sort of confidence to go on building, improving the structures of their houses and establishing themselves on the land they occupied, albeit illegally. In so doing, they invested so much, in vain. The case of Weregeu shows the cost of passive regulation of land resources in Addis. On the one hand, there is a supply that considerably lags behind demand. On the other, there is a reactive management of available resources posing huge costs to the City’s economy.
To understand the context, one has to look back into history. In all the past electoral cycles, especially since the contentious and deadly one in 2005, regularization – a process whereby illegal landholding is changed into legal with title deeds – has been used as an instrument of political persuasion by the ruling EPRDF. In all of the three recent elections, for instance, regularization was presented as a bargaining chip to collect votes by the incumbent.
In two of the three cases, a wholesome regularization has been undertaken. In the latest one, the regularization was limited to land located adjacent to legal landholdings. On all occasions, however, the signal the ruling elite sent out was that the trend is here to stay. For political expediencies, it has been rewarding illegality with complicit tolerance. Surprisingly, after each of the electoral cycles, officials were heard denouncing squatting on the strongest terms possible. Taking a U-turn from their pre-election signals, they demolish squatters and repossess land resources. They seem to forget that each cycle of squatting is a precedent of their previous actions.
Admittedly, the administration of Mayor Deriba has taken significant steps in modernizing the land resources registration process. A dedicated institutional framework for land management has been established and decentralized to district level. Aside from the development of a centralized data centre and automation of the registration and allocation processes, a huge cadre of human resources has been trained with technical and managerial skills.
In so many ways, the land management system of the City has improved. But the structural snags and operational abuses seem to continue to wreak havoc. And one of the structural snags relates to lack of clear guidelines on regularization, relocation and land management.
The land resource management regime remains opaque and inconsistent on regularization. Instead, policy stances continue to change with the political realities facing the incumbent. Furthering the problem are the mixed signals the ruling party has been sending in the past. Its constantly changing stances on the issue of regularization, oscillating along the political cycles, has created a huge buffer of uncertainty in the city. The constitutional guarantee of private property ownership, and loss of it only in due process, has been eroded by wereda officials and their enforcers whose conduct is little different from neighbourhood thugs. The sum total of the Administration governance, or lack thereof, is to instill an entrenched sense of insecurity among its citizens.
Considering the ever-increasing demand for land in the City, priding itself to be the political and diplomatic capital of Africa, closely related with the natural growth of the population and rural-urban migration; this trend of uncertainty can no longer be sustained. It has to be replaced with clear, consistent, pragmatic and inclusive policies on regularization. For this to happen though, there is a need for a change in attitude by the City’s Administrators.
The era of politicizing access to land has to end. So should the regularization-electoral cycle nexus be broken. Passivity has to be replaced by proactive engagement. Uncertainty has to be drained out and be replaced with sense of security. Land has to be considered as a tradable resource that can partially be guided by market forces. With such a policy refocus, the demand and supply forces can get enough leverage to effectively determine access and price.
This, however, does not mean that the markets ought to be left unregulated. Instead, considering the inelasticity of land supply, the government has to put in place effective regulation.
Crucial in the effort of creating policy clarity, on both regularization and general access to land, is making the entire process transparent and accountable. This entails making procedures traceable, competitive and inclusive. The process has to be known to all equally and serve accordingly. As such, much is expected from Deriba’s Administration. It cannot continue trying to solve old problems with old solutions. It needs to try something new – something that does not only solve the problem, but brings about a sustainable solution.
For over two decades now, the Administration remains the only source of access to land. Its provision through a lease system is essentially a primary market. Thus, it is about time for the Administration to abandon its ideological aversion to secondary market for lease rights, and encourage their transaction among individual holders. While regulating the process is justified, it can also collect taxes from such transactions.
Certainly, this takes more than amending the Land Lease Law, as the Administration is trying to do. It takes a change in the structural fundamentals of land management in the City. Policy clarity in market principles and consistent implementation has to be the drivers of land management. And the interference of partisan politics in the land management system of the City has to be reduced to the lowest possible level.
The vicious cycle of squatting and demolishing is costly to the City and citizens. Hence, it should not be allowed to continue. The Administration has to take its role of guarding the resources of the City seriously and execute appropriate action effectively. But on the other hand, it has to make sure that citizens’ right to housing is respected through affordable access to relevant resources. That is what Mayor Deriba ought to work towards in his remaining two years in office.
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